Mindfulness based approaches use Buddhist methods to address psychological difficulties. But how do they interpret Buddhist practice and how do they adapt it to the needs and problems of modern society?

In the last post I described some tendencies in our culture that underlie emotional and psychological difficulties:

  • Acute mental suffering and mental distress are very common – more than we may realise
  • We’re compulsively focused on activity and stimulation
  • Many people are often awfully hard on themselves
  • Resisting and avoiding difficulties is the source of many psychological problems

Mindfulness Based Approaches have developed because Buddhist meditation and mindfulness practices turn out to be excellent remedies – provided they are offered in the right way. Like standard Buddhist meditation, MBAs start with practices that cultivate stillness, stabilise attention and encourage a degree of concentration. In itself, this is an alternative to the compulsive activity and stimulation of the doing mode. Then, like Buddhist satipatthana practice (but unlike some other approaches to meditation), MBAs encourage a broad awareness of thoughts and feelings and an engagement with them that counters the tendencies that cause stress, depression and so on.

The key to teaching meditation in this context is that the techniques of meditation are much less important than helpful mental attitudes. Jon Kabat Zinn cites the attitudes of curiosity, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving and letting go as well as three that I want to discuss here: acceptance, being non-judgmental and being kind to yourself.

Acceptance or Moving Towards the Difficult

Buddhist teachings have always emphasised the importance of regarding pleasure and pain equanimously, avoiding attachment or aversion. MBSR and MBCT add to this the need to move towards and actively explore difficult experience. They use Buddhist samatha techniques to help people stabilise their attention and, on this basis, to engage with difficult and troubling thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. I realise that many other meditation teachers do something similar, but many don’t and I associate the growing popularity of this approach with the influence of MBAs.

The ‘clinical’ observation behind this emphasis is that people who experience stress, anxiety etc. are, on some level, avoiding their true experience and this is a significant cause of their problems. Conversely, allowing yourself to experience difficulties more fully – facing them directly, moving towards them, inviting them in (pick your metaphor) – is essential if you want to tackle your stress. Contrary to some people’s impressions, MBAs don’t offer a crowd-pleasing agenda. Most people who enroll on my MBSR courses think they’ll learn a form of relaxation, and they learn that, while relaxation may arise, it isn’t the goal of the practice.

 Being Non-judgmental

Jon Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as present moment, non-judgmental awareness. Self-hatred manifests as harsh, emotionally-laden judgments of one’s experience – ‘being judgmental’ – which prevents you from being fully aware of it or in a position to change it. As an MBSR teacher you learn to notice when a person’s description of their experience includes this sort of judgment; you encourage them to notice their judging tendency; and you guide them towards a non-interpretive and non-judgmental relationship with their experience.

Being non-judgmental doesn’t mean not making judgments. It means letting go of unskillful and largely unconscious responses that express themselves as an emotionally-laden judgments. The alternative, experiencing with mindfulness, is a basis for making wise judgments. This is a helpful distinction because it clarifies the role of judgment in Buddhist practice as well as in MBAs, and its near enemy.

Being non-judgmental doesn’t mean ‘accepting yourself’ in a passive sense. It also needn’t mean believing that you are intrinsically pure, good or enlightened, though Jon Kabat Zinn often uses such language. Personally, I don’t think those views are an essential part of MBAs.

Being Kind to Yourself

Because the self-judgments associated with stress, depression etc express harmful, unskillful emotions, countering them requires an alternative emotional tone: one of kindness. In MBSR and MBCT this is implicit in the method of moving towards difficult experience without judging it and embodied in the trainer’s responses to what participants say, especially when they are encountering difficulties.

In some MBAs kindness practices are taught explicitly, and in fact there is considerable debate about whether and how to include them. I have found this discussion helpful in teaching mettabhavana (loving kindness meditation). When people who are prone to depression take up mettabhavana their tendency to make harsh self-judgments can flavour their practice. The first stage becomes an impossible challenge and far from fostering metta it reinforces the belief that there’s something wrong with you. I don’t conclude that you shouldn’t teach mettabhavana or even that it is unsuited to people with depression. But MBSR has taught me to be alert to the underlying attitudes a person brings to meditation practice and it has given me ways to engage with them.

Teaching Methods

As this account of MBAs shows, the didactic content of the course is less important than the attitudes it encourages. Those attitudes are implicit in the practices and as the trainer shows participants what they mean. I won’t say much more as this is a large topic and not easy to articulate, but I think Buddhists can learn much from MBSR teaching methods, especially the ‘enquiry’ process: exploring with a participant the experience they describe, responding to it with mindfulness and modelling how they might do that as well. Teaching mindfulness and meditation are arts, not reduce able to techniques; but techniques help if they express what an intuitive and highly effective teacher naturally does. That’s what I find in MBSR.

There are other ways to teach mindfulness and meditation than the MBSR way, and its emphases have drawbacks. Exploring them properly will require another article, so I’ll just acknowledge that it is a gentle, receptive approach, rather than a dynamic, questing one, and that both ways have merits. MBSR shares many merits with Buddhist satipatthana  (mindfulness) practice but my point in these two posts has been that it also has has a particular value in working with the kind of mental suffering that is so common in modern society.